U.S. Release Date: September 27, 2002
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Andy Tennant
Producer: Jon Jashni (executive), Neal H. Moritz
Composer: George Fenton
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Dakota Fanning
Running Time: 1 hour and 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (some language/sexual references)

Dixie Flick
by Scott Holleran

Director Andy Tennant's Sweet Home Alabama lives up to its name: it's sweet and full of southern comfort. A talented cast and a second wind late in the story saves Tennant's romance, but something's missing way down south in Dixie.

Sparkling Reese Witherspoon's first star turn since the infectious Legally Blonde is mixed, and it's not her fault. Miscast in a role that seems written for Julia Roberts, she gives an uneven performance that plays as if she gives up trying to make sense of her undefined character.

That would be Melanie Carmichael, whose murky nature is the main problem with Sweet Home Alabama. Melanie begins her journey in Manhattan, where she's living the good life as a rising fashion designer while being courted by Andrew, her rich boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey in an elegant performance). When Andrew proposes marriage—and he does so in style, in a long, slow moment at Tiffany's—it's hard to imagine Melanie would be anything but fabulously happy; she's gorgeous, talented and hooked by a handsome prince.

Things turn sour when Melanie heads back to Alabama to tidy up some unfinished business from her past. Apparently, Melanie was never able to convince her first husband, Jake, (charismatic Josh Lucas) to sign the divorce papers—she never bothered to visit her parents (perfectly cast Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place) or friends—and she never bothered to tell anyone the truth about her background. But Melanie has been living her lie for seven years, which suggests deeper insecurities than she exhibits. This fiery southern belle has the world at her feet; she has no reason to fake anything to anyone for seven seconds let alone seven years.

Ms. Witherspoon, who was brilliant as the sister in Pleasantville and irresistible as the southern California college girl taking on provincial Harvard snobs in Legally Blonde—is wasted in a schizophrenic role. Melanie is a strong-willed career woman, an unhinged mess and an insecure little girl; she quickly becomes too disintegrated to sustain real interest.

Melanie's torn between two lovers—country Jake, city Andrew—and it takes far too long to discover why. Most of the slow-moving Alabama focuses on Melanie's troubled relationship with Jake, her childhood sweetheart, though there's never a coherent reason why they split.

When Andrew arrives, Dempsey breathes new life into the plot and there are some soulful moments when director Tennant indulges his sense of the romantic. Several scenes stand alone—lovers in the rain, kissing on the beach, a mother-daughter moment—and show flashes of a better movie.

Patrick Dempsey is a welcome presence on screen—though his early Elvis hair is more Memphis than Manhattan—and relative unknown Josh Lucas is excellent as the would-be hick husband. The supporting cast is filled with the best actors: Jean Smart shines as Jake's mother, Ethan Embry is endearing as the hometown buddy with a secret, and Melanie Lynskey's Lurlynn has some fine moments, too. They have a blast and it shows.

Unfortunately, the foil to all the southern fun, Andrew's sarcastic mother who is also the mayor of New York, is played by Candice Bergen doing Murphy Brown—like she did in Miss Congeniality. Ms. Bergen's routine does not wear well outside the long-running sitcom.

That's unfortunate for the underrated actress, who deserves more demanding roles.

27 years ago, Ms. Bergen was the beautiful, independent American woman, riding across the desert with Sean Connery in John Milius's The Wind and The Lion. For the plucky Ms. Witherspoon's sake, sweet nothings like Sweet Home Alabama ought to make way for such promising films.

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